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Physics in free fall

Dropping supercold atoms may prove useful for understanding general relativity

1:49pm, June 17, 2010

In an experiment that puts the good old-fashioned egg drop to shame, European physicists dropped a small blob of ultracold atoms down a 146-meter-tall shaft. The result: no yolk on their face.

In the new study, researchers created a cloud of about 10,000 ultracold rubidium atoms, so still and chilly that the atoms fused into a quirky quantum object called a Bose-Einstein condensate. Then they dropped the stuff off a lofty needle-shaped tower in Bremen, Germany, that stands just 23 meters shorter than the Washington Monument.

Freely falling objects are essentially weightless. So the successful drop shows that researchers now have the ability to monitor quantum objects in near-zero gravity — which may lead to a deeper understanding of heavy topics such as general relativity, a consortium of German, English and French researchers report June 18 in Science.

The new study is “an impressive technological advance,” comments physicist Wo

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